The New Orleans Capital Budget: The $1 billion tree that fell in the forest, where nobody was around to hear

Every year the New Orleans City Planning Commission (CPC) oversees the City’s process to develop a 5-year spending plan for the City’s Capital projects. And every year, CPC host about 20 public meeting to get input on the various budget requests, with little to no involvement from the public. I attended a handful of these meetings last year, and there were only three or four non-City employees at all of these meetings, and those people were from local government watchdog organizations like BGR, CBNO, and NOCOG. So why is the Capital Budget important, and if it is important, then why are so few people engaged in the process?

The Capital Budget is important because it is the City’s plan for every major project the City will build over the next 5 years. The 2014-2018 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) that the City adopted last year totaled over $1 billion (that is billion with a ‘b’) and included funding for a new airport terminal, a civic center at Charity Hospital, and money for every major road repair, park, police station, fire station, library, community center, and every other project that the City will build over the next 5 years. With the CIP’s $1 billion price tag and with projects in every part of the City, you would think that more individuals and neighborhoods would engage in this process.

The reason why more people do not engage in the CIP process, because most people do not know what the CIP is and they certainly do not know that the City is deciding the fate of these projects in their neighborhood. Some projects, like repairing City Hall elevators, will not be of interest to most people (unless you spent 40 minutes trapped in an elevator with Jackie Clarkson). Other projects are of vital importance to neighborhoods, like new equipment and improvements to your neighborhood playground, building a new fire station in your neighborhood, and major repairs to roads in your community. Neighborhoods care about these projects and would show up and provide input if they knew that these decisions were being made.

The problem is in how the City advertises and collects input on the CIP. CPC gets capital project requests and holds public hearings by the department. CPC emails a list out of different hearing dates of each department and does not give out information about the different projects that they are requesting funding for. So you may know that NORDC is holding a meeting on June 25, but you have no idea that NORDC is considering funding the park in your neighborhood. As a neighborhood, you would have to review every department’s requests to see if there are any proposals in your community. That is too much effort to expect from any neighborhood, especially considering that they do not understand this whole process.

At its last Operational Committee meeting on Tuesday, May 13, CPC announced that they were going to kick off the next round on Department Budget Hearings the week of June 23. CPC Chair Kelly Brown said that CPC has been criticized in the past for not having enough public involvement in the CIP, and that they need to do a better job this round. CPC staffer Geoff Moen said that he has been in contact with the Neighborhood Engagement (NEO) to help get the word out. I think that this is a good first step, but it is not enough.

CPC and NEO spent last summer and fall compiling a list of neighborhood association boundaries and contact information. It would not be difficult to map all of the Capital Budget request locations and contact the impacted neighborhood associations to let them know that CPC is considering a Capital Budget request in their neighborhood and let them know the request, the amount, the hearing date, and how to provide their input. In addition, CPC adopted its Neighborhood Participation Program (NPP) in summer of 2012, which call for more community engagement in all of CPC decision making processes including the CIP. The NPP specifically calls for NEO to do the following:

  • Prior to the Department’s submission of project proposals to the CPC, the City should engage the community to gather input on its priorities.
  • Issue a press release explaining the CIP process and announcing the opportunities for community engagement.
  • Create an online community engagement platform to record the community’s priorities for capital projects.

I do not think that CPC or NEO is doing any of these things (expect for maybe the second one), which are critical for getting more people involved in the decision making process. By being more proactive in engaging neighborhoods and residents in projects that they are interested in (those in their neighborhood), CPC can greater public participation in its CIP process. Currently, CPC is still getting more budget requests from the various City Departments, but they will soon announce the public hearing schedule for each department. I will be sure to announce it when the schedule becomes public, but you should be able to find more information on CPC’s website at its Calendars and Agendas and Capital Improvement Plan pages.


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